MINOT, N.D. – The reservoirs are full. The dams are open wide. The rivers have already climbed well beyond their banks. Throughout the Missouri River Valley and other parts of the upper Midwest, there’s simply no place left for any more water.
That brings a new threat to the nation’s waterlogged midsection: more rain. In a region already struggling with historically high water, the return of heavy storms could intensify the flooding and turn a soggy summer into a tragic one for a dozen states that drain into the Missouri.
“We know what’s coming down the river, and what’s going to continue to come down the river,” said meteorologist Wes Browning of the National Weather Service office in St. Louis. “But what we don’t know with any certitude, beyond five to seven days, is the amount of rainfall. That’s really going to drive this flood.”
The peril began unfolding during the spring, when storms dumped an unexpectedly large amount of rain across Montana. That precipitation, combined with unusually heavy snowmelt, caused a vast volume of water to build up behind dams in the United States and Canada.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Canadian authorities have been releasing water through those dams for weeks, inundating many low-lying, mostly rural parts of Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and North and South Dakota. Now the river valley is saturated, and the arrival of any more water could create an even larger disaster.
Many people expect to spend an anxious summer watching the skies and monitoring forecasts.
In Minot, the danger came from the Souris River, a little-known channel that flows south from Canada without entering the Missouri River basin. On Thursday, crews worked furiously to raise earthen levees in a last-ditch effort to protect at least some neighborhoods, even as officials acknowledged they could not prevent significant damage to North Dakota’s fourth-largest city.
The weather service’s Climate Prediction Center issued its three-month outlook for rain on June 16. Above-normal rain was anticipated over a large swath of the Great Plains covering much of the Dakotas, Iowa and Nebraska.
In the worst-case scenario, that rain would gush into the already-full river system and produce widespread, near-record flooding from Kansas City to St. Louis.
A case in point: a mere 2 to 3 inches of rain last week in northern Missouri pushed the Mississippi River up 6 feet within days near Hannibal. In Minot, the Souris is expected to top a city record set in 1881 by more than 5 feet.
Flood projections are simply “good long-range planning information,” Browning said. “From this point on, it depends on what’s coming out of the sky.”